Jump to Navigation
Jump to Content

United States v. Wilson

ELR Citation: 28 ELR 20299
Nos. Nos. 96-4498 et al., 133 F.3d 251/(4th Cir., 12/23/1997)

The court holds that the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers' regulation defining waters of the United States to include those waters whose degradation "could affect" interstate commerce exceeds its statutory authority under the Federal Water Pollution Control Act (FWPCA) as limited by the U.S. Commerce Clause and is therefore invalid. Defendants are developers who were convicted of felony violations of the FWPCA for knowingly discharging fill and excavated material into wetlands of the United States without a permit. Defendants challenge the validity of 33 C.F.R. §328.3(a)(3)'s definition of waters of the United States and several aspects of the district court's jury instructions. The court first holds that the Corps exceeded its congressional authorization under the FWPCA, and that for this reason, 33 C.F.R. §328.3(a)(3) (1993) is invalid. When viewed in light of its statutory authority, 33 C.F.R. §328.3(a)(3), which defines waters of the United States to include intrastate waters that need have nothing to do with navigable or interstate waters, expands the statutory phrase "waters of the United States" beyond its definitional limit. For the same reason, the court also holds that the district court's jury instruction based upon 33 C.F.R. §328.3(a)(3) is erroneous. The court next holds that the district court erred in instructing the jury to extend the jurisdiction of the FWPCA to wetlands that lack any direct or indirect surface connection to interstate waters, navigable waters, or interstate commerce. Because the court cannot determine whether as a result of this error the jury properly exercised the jurisdiction of the FWPCA, the court orders a new trial. The court also holds that, in instructing the jury that the FWPCA prohibits sidecasting, the district court included conduct not prohibited by the Act and the regulations promulgated under it. The court reasons that sidecasting from ditch-digging in itself effects no addition of a pollutant, and if the ditching successfully dries out the wetland prior to the addition of other materials, no violations of the FWPCA results because adding fill to dry land cannot be construed to be polluting the waters of the United States. But if the ditching is unsuccessful in converting wetland to nonwetland and fill is added, a violation does result. In light of the evidence presented in this case, the court finds that a jury may decide that defendants' conduct was culpable, but the error in the jury instructions requires a new trial. The court next holds that FWPCA §309(c)(1)(A) requires the government to prove defendant's knowledge of facts meeting each essential element of the substantive offense, but the government need not prove that the defendant knew his conduct to be illegal. Because the jury instructions did not adequately impose on the government the burden of proving knowledge with regard to each statutory element, the court orders a new trial. Last, the court finds that it need not resolve whether the district court's ruling constitutes reversible error, because the court has already identified other reasons for requiring a new trial.

Counsel for Plaintiff
Jane F. Barrett, Ass't U.S. Attorney
U.S. Attorney's Office
604 U.S. CtHse.
101 W. Lombard St., Baltimore MD 21201
(410) 962-4822

Counsel for Defendant
Steven A. Steinbach
Williams & Connolly
725 12th St. NW, Washington DC 20005
(202) 434-5000

Before Luttig and Payne, JJ.